England internationals are often preceded by controversy and conjecture in rugby league. But as the national side prepare for their first mid-season international in the southern hemisphere since 2002, excitement levels in what is a World Cup year are alarmingly low.
England do not play mid-season often: that, in itself, is symptomatic of the worrying state of international rugby league. But Wayne Bennett insisted that if England were to take the World Cup seriously this year, a mid-season international against proper opposition was a must.
But why Sydney? And why are Samoa the opponents? An opt-out in the past has been a game against France, but Bennett and England want, to coin the phrase, a proper test. “It gives us a flavour of what it’s like to play in a match of that calibre,” the England team manager, Jamie Peacock, said. “Playing France would not have cut it this year in the run-up to a World Cup.
“We want to bridge the gap, not having been away from each other for 12 months and not having had a game and not getting little issues sorted,” Bennett added. “We want to hit the ground running in the World Cup knowing who can do what.”
So Bennett has his wish. He has his mid-season international – and he has it in Australia. His club commitments as the Brisbane coach, plus the logistics of being able to bring a side capable of giving England a challenge, mean there was no other choice. But in essence, Bennett has nowhere to hide on Saturday.
His appointment as coach was met with a blaze of optimism 12 months ago and rightly so, given his impressive CV. Yet one cannot sugar-coat the fact that failure to make last year’s Four Nations final on home soil was anything other than a disappointment, try as hard as Bennett might to dress it up.
“We had a good Four Nations without winning anything or making the final but I still thought we did a lot of good things,” he said this week. “What I’m most pleased about is we’re heading in the right direction.”
But it is not only last autumn which has fans wondering whether the Bennett project can be a success. It is also his selection policy for this weekend’s game against the Samoans. The biggest headline? The 67-year-old’s decision to draft in two Australia-born players in Chris McQueen and Chris Heighington, the pair qualifying through English parentage.
Heighington has previous, having played for England six years ago, but at a time when the player pool in this country appears to be as rich as ever the selection of the 35-year-old – as well as McQueen, who was playing for Queensland three years ago – has not been received well.
Bennett’s team selection has been met with more questions than answers; including the omission of Mark Percival and the selection of Super League’s best full-back, Zak Hardaker, at centre. However, there are some positives including the completion of Mike McMeeken’s return from rugby league’s wilderness to the international stage.